After yesterday’s post a friend zeroed in on the paragraph below, and asked for some really practical steps towards doing this.
“We need to recapture a grand organising narrative for our lives so that our ethics are connected to something we can easily communicate and explain to people who don’t share it; rather than seeing faith as being a private, disconnected, part of who we are. We have to be able to understand our own behaviour, and account for it, in a way that is connected to this story and such that our behaviour is different to the behaviour of others — and we need to be prepared to simultaneously cop the sort of opposition that difference brings, and give the sort of generous space to others that we want to be afforded ourselves.
I want to start with the disclaimer that I’m a rookie and I’m still figuring this stuff out… and this stuff is harder than it sounds because it does challenge plenty of stuff we modernist, literate, Christians have embraced. I’ve been reading/grappling with this, and what it looks like in our church communities as I try to serve one, so I’ve got some thoughts. I’m not alone, there are heaps of books on this, The Benedict Option is the most famous. I liked it (with some significant reservations). I’ve written a few things around this before like my theses about what a continued reformation would look like in Australia, some propositions and stories about a different way of doing stuff, our need to be more imaginative in our political engagement (and less secular), and some thoughts on how to respond to what the census reveals about the Australian soul/mission field.
These points below are a bit sequential and integrated. I struggle with making anything too concrete, because I think most of how we should live is a contextually driven application of principles. What a narrative approach looks like will be different in the university, and in the juvenile detention system. In order to stop this getting stupidly long I’ve mostly just gone with summaries of these ideas, that I’m happy to unpack (though many of them are either the subject of past posts, or of books that you should read).
I think the best books on this (or the ones that have shaped/are shaping my thinking, I’m not saying I agree with everything in these, just acknowledging their import in getting to these ideas) are:
- Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How To Survive the Apocalypse
- Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens (and Hauerwas’ Community of Character)
- Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue
- Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option
- John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism
- James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World
- Augustine’s On Christian Teaching
- John Stackhouse’s Making The Best Of It
- Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality
- James K.A Smith’s You Are What You Love (and his cultural liturgies series, though I’m only two chapters in to his latest).
- Andy Crouch’s Culture Making
- Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem
- Brian Walsh’s Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time
I’m currently reading Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that shape the Church for Mission; it’s fast climbing the list; it’s like an optimistic, outwards looking, Benedict Option (so is How To Survive The Apocalypse).
1. Teach people that narrative matters and is where we get our identity and our ethics from. There’s an irony that a post like this is so propositional in its delivery. Everybody lives a way of life (an ethic) derived from an understanding of where we’ve come from (an origin story) and where we’re going (an eschatology). These combine to give us a sense of who we are, and we make these decisions based around who is authoring and starring in the story, and we are clearly not entirely the author of our own stories because life always pre-exists us. Or, as Alisdair MacIntyre puts it:
“We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making. Each of us being a main character in his own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others, and each drama constrains the others.”
“Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’
2. Have a sense of the Bible’s grand narrative in a way that shapes how we let God’s story shape our story; and preach that, and everything connected to that.
3. Understand that part of this narrative thing is seeing ourselves as embodied characters in the story being formed as we participate in it; and the connection between worship and story, and between our embodied lives and people being confronted with the story. So see practices as both formative and declarative. Live the story we preach.
4. Understand that this narrative is caught as much as taught; that knowledge is socialised before it is rationalised, so see church community as a community formed by a narrative as it lives that narrative and also as a plausibility structure for that narrative. Peter Berger who came up with ‘plausibility structures’ wasn’t just talking about the ‘worldview’ we have in our head that operates as a grid for us in assessing information to decide what is true, he points out that plausibility comes socially, in communities, through people living according to a truth in deliberate ways, who deliberately pass on that truth (like parents and schools do).
5. See (and train people to see) counter narratives for what they are; idolatrous stories built around deforming practices that have a certain compelling power that convince people because they address desires and emotions, rather than because they present rationally coherent accounts of reality. But this seeing also involves empathy and charity and seeking to recognise truth in these views that can be re-directed to its proper source (ala Paul in Athens), and recognise the true, created, desires that are finding a wrong ‘end’ in idolatry. Part of this is learning (and teaching people) to exegete places and cultures, not just Bible passages.
6. Embrace the good, true, and beautiful in order to appeal to our nature as storied creatures who are shaped by desire and story; which means both being good participants in a culture (created by others — both ‘high’ and ‘pop’), and creators/curators of stories and artefacts. Show how the cross is both sublime and ridiculous and have that inform our aesthetic and our engagement with the world (and its stories); the Gospel both answers our human longings and subverts the way we seek to answer them for ourselves.
1. Preach the Gospel as a cosmic story of God redeeming and recreating the entire world and defeating evil (Satan, sin, and death) through King Jesus, where we have a part to play rather than a propositional thing about how we find personal forgiveness for our personal sins. Teach each part of the Bible as part of this story where we see the drama unfolding.
2. Pray lots more. God answers prayer. Prayer is a dynamic relationship with God. Prayer shapes the way we see and then live in the world… Jesus teaches us to pray ‘your kingdom come’ in the midst of his most pointed ethical teaching about what life in the kingdom looks like.
3. Re-calibrate maturity as something other than personal piety; instead see it in terms of participation in this story (virtue formation), which requires a commitment to knowing God. I spoke this week to somebody who was feeling down because their prayer and Bible reading time wasn’t going well, while they were simultaneously practicing incredible acts of grace and forgiveness. Maturity is about being Christlike in an embodied sense (and in our thinking and desires); not about knowing more about God (which is a particular Platonic thing, Plato taught that we are not really ’embodied’ but a soul waiting to escape the body so we should feed the soul, that’s become a pietistic default for Christians). Prayer is good (see above), but prayer disconnected from our embodied, creaturely life, as the sort of act of a soul with soulish desires is not an expression of maturity.
4. Build church as a community with rhythms of life beyond Sunday gatherings. Practice gathering as a community in homes, but also as a faithful presence within the broader community. Build deliberate rhythms that involve people spending time together without a purpose beyond deepening relationships that are created by what we have in common (firstly Jesus, then things that bring us together like eating, life in a particular place/culture, interests). This community makes discipleship/formation possible (especially inasmuch as formation requires the rejection of other powerful stories, and that is easier in community (especially for those who have to make sacrifices directly connected to these prevailing stories — the single, the same sex attracted, the unemployed, etc).
See that simply being together (publicly and privately) as different people brought together by God, who love, serve, support and forgive one another, and love our neighbours together, is part of our formation as virtuous ‘image bearing characters’ but also as part of us being ambassadors. Be deliberate in explaining these actions to each other and connecting them to the story of God’s kingdom being revealed and built in Jesus (though without making the mistake of loving our neighbours as a bait and switch in order to sell them the Gospel).
5. Engage in cross shaped (sacrificial love) for our neighbours — especially the marginalised — as a community as both a formative practice (an act of worship), and part of our proclamation. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul talks about carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies, but when he does that he doesn’t say “I carry around the death of Jesus in my body’ but ‘we carry around the death of Jesus in our bodies’, in Romans 12 he says ‘offer yourselves (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular).
6. Value liturgy beyond Sundays (but including Sundays). Create liturgy (habitual practices) that are forms of worship (offering ourselves as living sacrifices) connected to our story (in view of God’s mercy) so that we don’t conform to the world’s stories (via its habits/patterns), but are transformed by the Spirit renewing our minds, through these practices. These liturgies have to be repeated so that they are disciplines that form us and counter the deforming power of other habits. Our low-evangelical culture’s low view of the sacraments has probably been to our detriment, because they do something formative to us because we are embodied people and are a clear way of participating in the Gospel in a way that reminds us who we are and gives us a more tangible sense of the presence of Jesus (who is there even when we’re not conducting the sacraments, the low church team gets some stuff right too).
7. Practice hospitality. With your church community and your friends and neighbours.
8. Encourage people to make and do things as expressions of our faith, but also just for creativity’s sake; be it as work (an embodied practice) or as creativity. Challenge our culture’s utilitarian view of work and creativity — that suggests work or creativity only has value if it has a purpose connected to its narratives (that people are beings who need to be entertained, sexually stimulated, or economically productive). The utilitarian approach to Christians making things would be to only make things that directly and explicitly serve the purposes of the Gospel (so we get bad Christian art and music).
9. See our ‘privately owned’ institutional space as public space to be generously shared with others. Buy more space, ambitiously, make it available to people we agree with, generously, and as much as possible participate in face to face relationships with those people, trusting that when we act as hosts and are confident in our story there’ll be opportunities to explain why we’re generous and hospitable to outsiders, and how we understand ‘space’ (the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it).
10. Re-imagine our political engagement — re-introduce the imagination into how we speak of political issues. Tell stories about people rather than propositions. Embrace the ‘sacred’ rather than rationalising. Join parties and present faith-based positions into the formation of party policy/positions. Realise that our political horizon is not just about life as individuals (and liberty), but about opposing the ‘powers and principalities’ of this world — systems set up by sinful people to perpetuate sinful behaviour. See pursuing justice as a necessary outcome and expression of belief in a just judge; not a thing we do apart from the Gospel, but explicitly because of it.
11. Value virtue over utility. Our churches, across the evangelical world, are driven by pragmatism rather than emphasising character; and this expresses itself in our metrics, and in our politics. Virtue ethics are ethics created by a story. I’m preaching to my past self here, I even used to call myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’; I repent.
12. Pursue formation, not just ‘conversion’ — we’ve made label ‘Christian’ a descriptor for somebody who ticks a particular belief box, and let our efforts be pointed towards achieving that ticked box, not to the harder work of character formation.
13. Accept, embrace even, the ‘grey’ that comes from our creatureliness. We’ve been far too black and white in our thinking and engaging; this manifests in plenty of ways but one of the most pernicious is that people think they need to believe a bunch of black and white truth claims before belonging in a community where they can explore and come to convictions over time. It also means we’ve settled for soundbite theology and limited attention spans rather than wrestling with complexity.
14. Practice rest, silence, and the making of space for all this stuff. We’re too busy and we’re overstimulated (while our attention spans are too short). Most of us. To put in the bodily effort required for this sort of transformation; this, coupled with a consumer culture where some people unplug from a church because we’re not being taught/spoonfed content for our growth/stimulation, or judge a community on its preaching/input (often compared to super preachers on the Internet), means we’re not building the depth of relationship with anybody that this stuff requires; we either don’t have the time in the short term (the diary), or over the long term (years) to build deep relationships. We’re impatient. Rest pushes back on this impatience.
15. Re-imagine work and ‘success’ for us and our kids. Spend less on education; work less; don’t take promotions. We’re economic captives to ‘Babylon’ even if we think we’re fighting against a ‘Babylonian’ sexual ethic.
16. Tell stories about people (and let people tell their stories).
1. Value institutions and build them. Starting with the church. Institutions and systems can be corrupted by sin, but perhaps the best way to fight institutions that have been corrupted is actually through institutions (not just with a vacuum). The people who made the tower of Babel were making a bad institution, if people had chipped in to help Noah building the ark they would’ve been participating in a positive institution (much like the later temple builders)
2. Counter our nation’s/world’s idolatrous narratives with better stories; and better supporting infrastructure for participating in those stories. For example, instead of abandoning church schools, or using them as an expensive way to form ‘leaders’ who are contributors to an economic vision of the human, use them to fight ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering, math) education and its view of the person as an economic unit functioning in a machine with, perhaps, a liberal arts education focused on virtue formation. Our stories and institutions bring a sense of personhood by forming our understanding of what it means to be a person.
3. Foster entrepreneurial optimistic ‘disruptive’ engagement with the world, for example consider how participating in rejecting the narrative of profit, productivity, and the ‘market’ might result in start ups that are social enterprises with a social justice focus; subvert and disrupt that narrative using its own equipment, and encourage Christians to create businesses aimed at expressing things that are true about our convictions. Make those expressions overt, but aim them at the common good, not self interest.
4. Re-imagine faith and work. The workplace isn’t just a mission field where we can convince colleagues of the truths of the Gospel, but a field in which we can live our convictions that bodily work matters, that death is the enemy, that our bodies will be raised, and that God has a particular concern for (and uses) the weak and the marginalised against the powerful and the oppressor. Choose vocations (or create businesses) that are deliberate expressions of something true about God’s world that allow us to see work more directly as storied, without devaluing the ordinary work of serving others with the gifts God has given us, or according to the needs of our society (ala Luther); don’t explicitly or implicitly prioritise full time ‘Gospel ministry’ as the only real Gospel ministry.
5. Rediscover an aesthetic connected to our story and use it in creating art and architecture; think about how our story might shape our buildings and spaces and so shape our practices (what does it mean that our story is about ‘light and life’ when many stories in our world are about ‘darkness and death’, how might a well lit auditorium (or lounge room) full of plants, colour, and movement reinforce this truth, where a dark and uncomfortable room where we all sit still and stare at screens might reinforce counter-formative practices). Make ‘artefacts’ that express this aesthetic in a way that pushes back against the darkness.
Over to you. What are your ideas?